Ivanka Trump has found herself pulled into one of America’s bellwether political issues: sexual harassment in the workplace. The GOP nominee, her father Donald Trump, told USA Today on Monday that were Ivanka to be sexually harassed in the workplace:
“I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that was the case.”
Ivanka’s brother, Eric Trump, told CBS This Morning on Tuesday that from the perspective of running a company, the issue of sexual harassment should be addressed strongly and is a no-go in their family’s empire. So far, so good. But then he doubled down on his father’s sentiments, saying that:
“Ivanka is a strong, you know, powerful woman. She wouldn’t allow herself to be, you know, objected, you know, to it [sexual harassment]. And by the way, you should certainly take it up with Human Resources, and I think you know, she, she definitely would as a strong person. At the same time, I don’t think she would allow herself to, to be subjected to that, and I think, uh, I think that’s the point he was making, and I think he, he did so well.”
Voting is an innately emotional behavior. Even the most cynical among us, those who have been in the trenches for years – worked county fair booths, manned phone banks, listened to high-level polling calls – find ourselves casting our ballots with emotion. Based on that type of professional experience, and my own as a person who has been sexually assaulted more than once, I think that these comments may be the nail in the coffin for the Trump campaign with many women.
I have read the USA Today interview, and watched the clips of Eric dozens of times over, and in spite of my efforts to be a steely wall of political pragmatism, my only takeaways are: “If someone sexually harasses you, it is your responsibility to leave that job.” and “Strong women don’t allow themselves to be sexually harassed.”
“Strong women don’t allow themselves to be sexually harassed” is a more nuanced issue that any person who has found themselves at the intersection of sexual harassment/assault and criminal/legal justice understands.
Both of these sentiments are dangerously off-base.
The first takeaway, “If someone sexually harasses you, it is your responsibility to leave that job” is so ludicrous that there is no merit to refuting it, except to drop it and leave it where it lands. But, just in case there are some who are not keeping up: sexual harassment is, at best, a violation of literally every workplace code of conduct, and at worst, a crime. If someone commits a violation of workplace conduct, or a crime, they are the one who should be without a job. Not the person who suffered as a result of a violation of workplace conduct or crime.
The second, “Strong women don’t allow themselves to be sexually harassed” is a more nuanced issue that any person who has found themselves at the intersection of sexual harassment/assault and criminal/legal justice understands. It’s an issue that I can only explain through a couple of personal anecdotes.
Scenes from a New Jersey Pizzeria
As a lifelong Republican, I spent my childhood looking forward to the day I could get a job and earn my own money. To that end, when I was 15 – about a week before 9/11 – I stopped by a pizzeria in Highland Park, NJ that my family liked, and asked if they were hiring. I started work there a few weeks after 9/11, when the world had settled down a bit. I answered the phones, and took orders for two-for-one pizza deals from stoned students at Rutgers University. I made $5.15 an hour, and I absolutely loved it.
In the winter/spring of 2002, the nephew of one of the owners began working at the pizzeria as a manager. He was 19, and a very nice young man. He taught me how to make cheesesteaks, and he was able to work out computer issues that stumped the pizzeria owners.
June 16, 2002: It was a hot summer Sunday, and I went to my daytime shift at the pizzeria. I wore shorts and a tank top because there was no air conditioning; the temperature outside was in the 90’s, I worked 3’ from a deep fryer, and 6’ from a 600-degree pizza oven.
Half a lifetime later, I still feel like I have to justify the choice of my clothes that day.
About halfway through my shift, the owner left to get supplies. The 19-year old manager asked me to restock the sodas . I went into the dimly-lit walk-in refrigerator/freezer, and began restocking the lime-green cans of Sprite, Coca-Cola red – a welcome respite from the blazing heat.
A few minutes after I’d begun my task, the manager walked in, though I didn’t realize it. The door was behind me, and I couldn’t hear him come in through the hum of the refrigerators. It was only as I bent over to grab cans from the soda cases and stood to load them into the refrigerated storefront doors that I felt hands grasp my bony, 90-lb, 16 year-old hips and realized that a man was behind me. As I straightened up, I looked over my left shoulder – the shoulder nearest the door – and realized that my manager was the man behind me.
The thing about being sexually violated is that time simultaneously slows down and speeds up. The entire encounter, realistically, took 2 minutes, at most. He was no taller than 5’6” to my 5’2” – just tall enough for me to feel his erect penis on my backside. Just tall enough to be able to quickly, and easily, force his hand into my shorts, and nearly inside of me. Just tall enough to kiss and suck on the back of my neck at 16, exposed by the ponytail of a young girl on a hot summer day, before I was able to shove him off of me. It’s a thing that, to this day, my 6’ tall boyfriend of 5 years can’t do to me because a left-hook is my actual, instinctual reaction to a man behind me. In my memory, then and now, the pizzeria-manager’s actions seemed to last a lifetime. But when I think of my actions – grabbing his wrist and forcing it out of my shorts, pushing him back as I turned to run out of the walk-in – they happened so quickly.
Here’s the funny thing: I stayed. At 16, I thought that’s what a strong person would have done – not run away and back down. I walked over to my backless stool, in front of the rudimentary computer, my back to where he was stationed, 3’ from the deep-fryer where I took orders by phone. I sat as this manager crept up behind me to make lewd comments, and I patiently waited for the owner to come back, nearly 2 hours later, because I thought quitting face-to-face was the right thing – the strong thing – to do.
Upon the owner’s return, I informed him that I could no longer work there, in spite of the fact that a week earlier, I’d asked for more shifts since school was ending. His first question was whether the manager had “done something” to me. At the time, I very simply said that I needed to watch my younger siblings more than I’d previously anticipated, for the sake of expediency and getting the fuck out of that place forever. It didn’t quite work out that way, but from the moment I felt the uninvited hands of a man in my pants, every move I’ve made was in service of being strong.
It didn’t break me; it was yet another unfortunate experience of being ambitious, and born with a vagina in America, but it didn’t come close to breaking me.
I was 16 years old. I didn’t even have the opportunity to be a “strong woman” because I was still a child. I’d barely kissed a boy, much less had sex. And even if I had, it’s not an excuse. When you’re a 16-year old kid sitting 3’ from a deep-fryer in Highland Park, NJ in crisis, you don’t have a lot professional mobility.
Which brings me to my next life experience:
June, 2013. I found myself at a book party in New York City, running into a prominent columnist for a prominent newspaper who I’d met at a similar party a little over six months earlier. A nice man, with a reputation that preceded him, he was a prolific writer, revered by nearly everybody who I’d ever known professionally. At a crossroads in my own career, with a bug for writing, I was eager to meet and spend time with intellectual and creative-types and learn the secret to their success – perhaps, even earn a spot on a farm team of up-and-coming writer-types. After one too many wines, I agreed to meet with the prolific writer the next week.
Cut to the Press Box on 2nd Ave. The prolific writer and I agreed to grab a drink and chat about the industry and politics. I’m rather fortunate to report that everybody I’ve worked for since the pizzeria manager has exercised the utmost level of professional respect, value, and dignity. Because of that experience, I’m able to get an early feel for when things may take a turn for the inappropriate, as they did this particular evening.
Halfway through my Riesling and his vodka martini, the prolific writer began testing the boundaries of “appropriate” – he sat to my right, and his left hand wandered further down my back than it should have while making a point, his right hand further up my leg while talking about the rise of his column. By the time it became clear that he was not getting the picture that I wasn’t there for a romantic encounter, we’d each already ordered another drink. I let him know that “this isn’t what I came here for, but I would very much like for us to be friends.” Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work out.
Shortly after our second drink arrived, the physical contact escalated from “getting to know you” to “San Diego Mayor Bob Filner.” At my suggestion, we split the check, and I bolted out onto Second Avenue, with him literally chasing and groping after me, until I could hail a cab that took $15 of my last $20 to get to Penn Station.
At this point, I was 26 years old. I was a woman, I had the opportunity to be strong. I thought I was doing what was strong people: networking with successful people, building credibility in places where people were seen, met, and heard. As it turns out, being polite and splitting the check with these people didn’t do jack shit to advance my intellect or career.
It didn’t break me; it was yet another unfortunate experience of being ambitious, and born with a vagina in America, but it didn’t come close to breaking me. I was rattled, but I wasn’t broken. I’m not, and never have been, weak for what I’ve been through.
It wasn’t my responsibility to leave my job or choose another career after being sexually assaulted, even though at one point I had to. I wasn’t the person who did something wrong. And the notion that a woman’s strength, or stature, prevents her from being sexually harassed or assaulted is fantasy. Sexual predators don’t take the time to ascertain much about their target’s character, much less how strong they are. Sexual harassment and assault isn’t about the person being harassed or assaulted, it is about the perpetrator. For that reason, it can happen to any woman, from the teenage girl at the pizzeria in Highland Park, NJ to an ivy-league educated attorney like Anita Hill. Nobody allows themselves to be subjected to sexual harassment – they don’t get the luxury of a choice in the matter.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.